by Mark Chillingworth

Suffolk Council CIO Mark Adams-Wright packing local punch

Apr 11, 201314 mins
IT Leadership

“The enthusiasm to take risks and make big changes is pretty healthy,” says Mark Adams-Wright, CIO of Suffolk County Council. At the council’s Ipswich headquarters he describes the journey the authority is on to become a thriving community that subtly embraces technology while remaining a rural idyll.

“There is a lot of common sense and rationality here, so when you do talk about technology they are pretty receptive,” says Adams-Wright.

“We are focused, as an organisation, on being one that is fit for purpose and that is fit for the future,” he adds.

Although Suffolk is home to the UK’s busiest container port at Felixstowe and to BT’s research centre at Adastral Park, they are the only large-scale employers in the area: agriculture, fishing and SMEs make up the bulk of the opportunities for residents. The challenge for the county is to balance its natural beauty and celebrated lifestyle with opportunities for both residents and employers.

“As a Tier One authority we are under huge financial strain and we have to find millions of savings. The government keep telling us that the austerity will go on and on, so in the authority naturally we have discussions on how the back office and front end operate,” the CIO explains.

“From a technology view, the desire is to make it a county that can thrive. The traditional services – social care and schools – are undergoing huge change.

“Technology plays a major part in the transformation of these services, whether in making our services impactful or keeping costs down through the right level of service,” Adams-Wright explains.

It’s a time of massive change for the public sector: local authorities across the UK are repositioning themselves without any policy or guidance from the Coalition government. Schools opt to become academies and NHS Primary Care Trusts are being phased out for commissioning bodies. The government has suggested that local communities should have more say, but it is not clear whether communities will speak through the local authorities they already pay for.

“We are grappling with similar topics as other authorities and challenging ourselves in a really healthy way,” says Adams-Wright. “This is not a closed shop, members of the council and the authority workforce are very positive and there is a good sense of engagement.”

Adams-Wright says this has created a collaborative environment where it’s “not as difficult to get things done as I thought it might be”.

If the authority is to change into a body that reflects the needs of 2013 and beyond, then so will the technology.

As Suffolk is a popular holiday destination, Adams-Wright sees mobility as essential to the county’s growth.

“Mobile apps can improve the experience here; QR codes can offer value-adds to make the experience for visitors more relevant and pertinent to them. With mobile broadband increasing that sort of impact becomes invaluable.”

Local knowledge

To seed mobile apps growth, Adams-Wright turned to the people that knew the most about Suffolk – the county’s residents – and a hack day was organised at the shiny new Suffolk County Council offices and develop an app. Council supplier and information management vendor Jadu provided a library of templates for apps and a full Java development kit, but it was ideas that Adams-Wright was really interested in.

“We wanted a Suffolk app for Suffolk people by Suffolk people, so we got them to tell us what they wanted. We created a hotline for people to tell us app ideas and we ran workshops with staff to work out what data we had to work with and from their ideas, what apps were needed too.

“By the hack day itself we had already amassed 60-plus concepts and on the day we had a similar amount of people join us to code and develop apps. We really created a connection between the authority and the Suffolk development community and enthusiasts alike.

“The variety of people was great, we had seven-year-olds up to pensioners. In the end a 17-year-old from Woodbridge won the top prize with a schools closures information app that used simple green and red colour banners to inform Suffolk residents if a school was open or closed due to snowfall, for example. He impressed the judging team because he had a great ability to explain the app’s logic, but he was not a developer – in fact he came at the last minute with a friend and now has an internship with Jadu.

“We now have six apps that residents can download. We decided not to make any major changes to the winning app so it and its success story can be showcased,” Adams-Wright adds.

“To keep the mobile area fresh and relevant, I want to continue to develop our mobile apps through crowd sourcing. At the hack day we had people from Norfolk County Council as well as a well-known political blogger and the whole feeling towards crowd sourcing has changed here,” he says.

To encourage further development, Suffolk is creating a portal offering items for professional and amateur app developers alike to work with, and the local Ruby developers’ group has expressed interest in hosting events with the council.

“People see that the council can deliver experiences in a credible way. Technology is growing as a part of society. The hack day was really powerful as it was about the outcome,” says Adams-Wright.

Getting taxpayers actively involved, he says, is in line with one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s flagship policies.

“The Big Society idea is about less central control and more local decisions. So it’s important that we help society help itself. It helps the authority open up to people who can help; they are like-minded people who can achieve things.”

As well as throwing open the doors of its offices, Suffolk has been reaching out to its denizens online, through a new citizen-facing website which has won government awards.

Community and the cloud

These changes in attitude have been underpinned by change in the operational basis of the authority.

“We want this organisation to be as flexible as it can be. We are going to be less about delivery and more about community,” says Adams-Wright, adding that this will change the technology landscape Suffolk operates.

“Over the last three years I’ve challenged the views of what can’t be done and on the issues of risk, which are often about a lack of understanding. So the strategy now is about the impact of cloud for example,” he says.

“We use Smartsheet, a project management tool in the cloud. It’s like Microsoft Project, but better, and we are now a very large user of it. We now have pockets of cloud-based solutions and we are analysing the opportunities that Google Apps offers.

“We decided it was time for us to look desktop automation and challenge the ‘Microsoft-only’ question as it is a huge part of our spend. We asked ourselves – is this the only way? We looked at whether Google Apps could be used by the council as a truly viable alternative and a real game-changer in the way the council approaches the utilisation of its desktop tool suite.

“We are not doing a like-for-like comparison, but what I want to do is make sure that we have the right tools for an organisation that is shrinking.

“We must be brave and honest enough to ask ourselves whether Google does enough to be a viable alternative, and whether the organisation is ready for browser-based desktop access? So a pilot group of 60 users is using Google as their main environment. Some of the feedback is positive, some less positive and that is no surprise. Some of the issues are about the way that people use applications – habits and expectation – and reflex actions forged using Office are challenged with Google’s suite.

“Where we have teams working on complex spreadsheets, then Google is less popular, but in Communications they love the collaboration on Google as they can use it wherever they are, especially if they are out in the field and need to create information for press releases or update their teams.

“Our strategy is to have a multi-vendor approach and that is the way the cloud works,” he says. Adams-Wright is excited about cloud computing freeing IT to deliver value rather than spend its time on integration.

“Integration has placed itself at the wrong part of the food chain; it is a by-product of getting something right.

“This strategy shows we can be valid and we are trying to break moulds and actively challenge. I think this is a brave new world and that only the brave can do well in it.”

A broader base

Adams-Wright shrugs off the cloud’s doom-mongers. “There is a cottage industry in data-loss scares. A lot of the people that talk about this are in fear of their business revenues. It is easy to be bleak and we continue to talk about data loss, but also by being more free with our data we can move things forward towards a better end. Data should always be a half-full, half-empty discussion and we have to be careful that we don’t over-balance fear. It is easy to build for now, but people in our organisations are not the youth of now and they have been sold a message of insecurity.”

With an open mind to cloud, it is no surprise that Adams-Wright is equally a benefactor of consumerisation and how it can plug into the Suffolk strategy.

“We have virtualised every possible server and are moving towards an enterprise VDI solution, so by 2014 we can look at our PC and physical estates differently and that will be an interesting journey. A 300-user Citrix implementation has already taken place for the authority’s Public Health team.

“Our vision is to create a simple to run and operate PC environment with browser and thin-client access that users will need to do their jobs. Device ownership is less the issue in this world and concepts of BYOD begin to have genuine impact.” Along those lines he is installing a public wifi at the headquarters using a commercial ISP.

“You need to get in amongst it. It’s not about accepting terms and conditions and most people don’t challenge their suppliers. The market is enthused by how much we understand the cloud, and the vendors want someone to be the leader.

“Suppliers are in business to make money, not lose business, so cloud services will be lost and won by service,” he says with a nod to the new breed of suppliers available to local government.

“Look at RIM and how bad news can spread for an organisation; so Microsoft, Google and Amazon are not in this market to have bad press.”

But what about the councillors and the authority’s leadership team? Are they ready for this brave new world of mixed vendors, data in the cloud and employee-owned devices?

“I have really enjoyed helping my colleagues understand the art of the possible. Technology was akin to the dark arts for some and now it is more mainstream for them,” says the CIO.

Inspiring leadership

Adams-Wright is Suffolk County Council’s first CIO, creating the role by bringing ICT and Information Management together, and he has worked with its leadership to inspire new levels of interest in technology.

“In my first meeting the leadership said the new strategy sounded good, but then who were they to question it?” he admits. So he brought in fellow trail-blazing local authority CIO Jos Creese of Hampshire and some Gartner analysts and presented the technology strategy to the leadership again, with Creese and Gartner there to scrutinise the plan on the behalf of the management board as ‘Critical Friends’. That move, Adams-Wright says, changed the engagement towards ICT and created a real buy-in to the IT team’s journey and aims.

“They have moved from a position of reticence to knowing what they want and they are hungry to have it,” he says.

Back in 2004, Suffolk was one of the first authorities to form a major joint venture with a business when it signed a 10-year service provision deal with BT Global Services, called Customer Service Direct (CSD), reported at the time to be worth £301 million to the telco. By 2010 the deal wasn’t performing and the council leader that struck the deal had left. With four years remaining on the deal when Adams-Wright joined, ensuring that the that relationship remained healthy and beneficial to both parties was critical.

“Just like any long-term commitment, you don’t get what you want and need if you don’t work hard at it on all sides as we needed to work harder to keep the partnership successful,” he says.

“I felt we were not getting the best value we could at the same time as the downturn in the economy began. The cost of change was too high and becoming beyond affordability for the council. So by the time I joined there was a need for a re-think. The key issue was that change was chaotic – anyone could make a request for a change and work statements were created all over the council. We lacked the rigour and control we need to scrutinise spend, for example we had amassed nearly a dozen different reporting software solutions, and not enough drive was in place for corporate solutions evaluation and re-use.

“So we set up a corporate process for any change over £500 to be assessed and a Commissioning Board now meets every Tuesday with senior representatives of all business areas, the Contracts and Procurement team and the CSD team. The need for commissioning new work has to be evidenced and explained by the Requestor at this meeting and the board judges whether it is in the interest of the council to spend money on that requirement. It has been a hugely effective process, saving the council upwards of £8 million in unnecessary or non-value-added spend over its life to date.

“The ICT relationship management team was also brought back into the council from CSD so that the business areas could be both supported and challenged more effectively.

“We also looked carefully corporately at the areas in which we had invested and needed to invested in for the future. This has led us to invest in critical strategic areas like Business Intelligence so that we as a council can be highly effective in the decision-making and contract management disciplines needed as more service is delivered by partners outside the council.

Think laterally

“As investment money is harder to find, every authority is going through transformation, requiring massive levels of support from technology. It will not change as far as the eye can see so we have to think laterally. Initiatives like Public Service Network (PSN) and the G-Cloud which allow the advantages of collective bargaining to be driven into the local environment are essential to create the impetus for affordable technology-led transformation but as a sector we have to be more open and positive towards sharing and working together.

“If we can work together to create centres of excellence across geographies then we will have a platform to deliver what our organisations need and keep the purse strings tightly managed.”

Prior to joining Suffolk County Council Adams-Wright had worked at Dell and former building society Abbey. It was at Dell that he got his first taste for the possibilities of cloud computing as he headed up the vendor’s services business.

“I come from a private sector background and I really wanted to take stock and use some of the technology experiences I have had for this environment,” he says of his move into the public sector.

Suffolk in turn wanted an IT leader that also had a focus on customer service, skills Adams-Wright had learnt at Dell and at logistics firm DHL.

“I hadn’t done public sector: I had done IT, FMCG and finance and I have made my career from taking best practice to other markets. It was nervous, but I was encouraged by Suffolk’s attitude and desire to learn more about the opportunities that are out there.”

Mark Adams-Wright CV

February 2010-present:CIO, Suffolk County Council 2010-2011: ID Assurance, Suffolk County Council 2006-2009: Global Standards and Compliance – Technology, Dell 2004-2007: Head of IT Service Control, Abbey 1999-2004: Global Programmes Manager, DHL